Title: No Horns on These Helmets
Editor: Erin Lale
Contributors: Ross Baxter, L.J. Bonham, Hannah Burton, Brianna Chalfant, Laura Dasnoit, Jackson Eflin, Kathryn M. Hearst, Tyree Kimber, Erin Lale, Gerri Leen, Hugh B. Long, Garman Lord, John Loving, Christine Morgan, T.J. O’Hare, J. M. Rose, Robert Lusch Schreiwar, Jeff Szappan, Tony Thorne, Cynthia Ward
Pages: 230 pp
Price: $14.95 / $4.99
No Horns on These Helmets is an anthology that I heard about and was looking forward to even before a review copy was offered to me. It was easy enough to agree to a review, though when the review copy came my way, I decided almost immediately that I would wait to read the book until I could buy a copy without the watermark the ARC e-book sported. (I understand the purpose of them; pirating books is bad. The watermark competed too much with the text of the book for my eyes to easily switch back and forth, and anyway, I wanted to support this book by purchasing an actual copy!)
I’m going to state up front that this is not a favorable review. As both an author and a reader, I understand that one’s experience of a work of fiction is at least partially one’s responsibility, and I’ll own that. I went into this book expecting a pagan-friendly anthology gathered around what I thought would be a theme: Scandinavian and/or Germanic inspired stories. I expected a variety of settings, and I’m not fussy when it comes to that. Re-imaginings of folktales set in a futuristic place? Cool! Untold interactions with mystic creatures in the present day? Awesome! Points of view from traditional villains of our myths? Gimme. Magical surrealism? Perfect! I’ll admit that I’m pedantic when it comes to some things, though I try to save that for my own personal writing and editing. I like to think I’m easy when it comes to reading. It does not need to make sense here and now, it needs to makes sense in the story.
Gullveig Drowning by Jackson Eflin follows a young seer who is afraid that she won’t have what it takes to help her people; she fears she is missing a connection that she ought to have with the spirit realm. This is a story of magic, mysticism, and gods moving among the human realm. This is my kind of story, and I loved this one. Great, I thought. If this is what was in store, I couldn’t wait to read more!
The Second Time Around by Brianna Chalfant furthered those expectations. This is a heartbreaking story of modern-day worshipers as they deal with horrible tragedy. The writing in this story was vivid and immediately sucked me in. I can’t say I enjoyed such a story, because it was a heavy, heavy read, but it did all the things such a story is supposed to do, and I look forward to reading more by the author.
The Legend of Delbel the Butzemann by Robert Lusch Schreiwar was not one of my favorites in the book, but my biggest issue with this was formatting rather than anything else — the inclusion of end notes in fiction tossed me out of the story each time they came up. Despite that, I did enjoy this story more than I expected to.
In Chains Until Ragnarok by Tyree Kimber was the first story I had to struggle with, but I will admit here that this was more because of my own reading preferences and less to do with the author’s storytelling. The Ragnarok myth cycle bores me at the best of times. The writing was sound.
Tony Thorne’s Her Gothic Vacation was the first story that I really had a problem with. Other than the setting of the story, I do not understand how this story belongs in this anthology. Some of my strikes against the tale were style preferences: the tale opens with third-person omniscient voice, which is one of my least favorite to read; this is also the story where I started to notice typos, usually in the form of misplaced dialogue quotations. But beyond that, I did not find myself sympathetic to the characters overmuch. (Upon being kidnapped, forced to retrieve a supernatural statue of dubious nature, and then meeting up with her captor, the main character yells, “You devils!” at the men behind her ordeal, for example. My suspension of disbelief can handle supernatural statues no problem. Apparently it cannot handle unbelievable dialogue.) On top of it, the creature ends up being called a demon, more than once. Wait, so what’s the connection to the theme of the anthology, again? The conclusion of the story . . . yeah, this was the first one that I really did not like even a little bit.
Christine Morgan’s Blades of Ice and Ivory was a welcome, if bracing, relief. Morgan has a deft hand with elements-as-character, and this story was perfect. It reminded me of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, only, you know, good. Not one lick of dialogue, this tale is all about fighting for your life at the mercy of the sea — which has none — and rescue coming from unexpected places. I loved this story.
The Dragon Bone Tower by Cynthia Ward …. So, okay. I realize that just because seemingly high fantasy stories have people generally talking in a certain way does not mean they have to. I realize that the inclusion of modern slang and idioms don’t have to be bad things … but. But. I can’t decide if this story is making fun of high fantasy tropes — brawny barbarian warriors, evil wizards, down-trodden and abused apprentices — or what. What I do know is that, far as I could tell, this story doesn’t even have the setting connection that Her Gothic Vacation could claim to connect it to the theme I thought was the glue for this collection. On top of that, there were dialogue gems such as, “Get up, shithead, and prepare for the day,” and, “you pathetic pansy.” And there’s another demon to be summoned, though this one is beautiful and buxom and a wee bit dom, what with her riding crop that she slaps in her hands a time or two. Sacrifice, betrayal, bantering with strangers … if this had been in a different anthology I could have liked it better, or steered clear of it, more likely. (I’m still not sure it wasn’t supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. I don’t much care for tongue-in-cheek in my fantasy).
Laura Dasnoit’s Victorious Girlfriend had promise, and started out well enough. Certainly upon leaving the dragon bone tower behind was a relief. It lost me, however, as characters who were presented as strangers to the POV character were given names in the writing without being introduced. The story is told in two parts — modern interaction, and a flashback sort of tale within the tale. I liked the flashback tale within the tale. The handling of a large cast of a characters and their randomly being named despite the narration being close point of view made it hard to enjoy that part of the story.
The Door in the Lake by T.J. O’Hare and The Youngest Valkyrie by Kathryn M. Hearst were both very enjoyable reads, and while I can’t say that I enjoyed Gerri Leen’s To Love Loki (we have a soft spot for Loki in our household and this was a not-very-friendly-to-Loki story) I was reminded how much I appreciate her storytelling ability.
Norn Porridge written by Ross Baxter attempted to be amusing over a preposterous idea: a failing cereal company wants to buy the secret recipe to an amazing porridge. Technically speaking, there was nothing wrong with this story. I don’t like light storylines, I like doom and gloom, angst and darkness, and I won’t fault this writer for my not liking this story. Still, by the end of this tale I was ready to be done with the collection. I liked a lot of the stories (more than I realized as I’m writing this and seeing how many I actually did like), but the ones that I disliked or that tossed me out for whatever reason I really disliked, and I just wanted it to be over.
And then came John Loving’s The Guardian. I eased into Loving’s world as though it was familiar landscape rather than a new place I’d never seen before. Randal Thorpe has an easy narration, a believable awareness and devotion to the gods — he reads like what I would expect a polytheist to read like, and he brings Them into the Martian landscape without making it seem far-fetched. The ending to this story left me frantic to find more of his work (I still haven’t, so if anyone wants to point me in the right direction, please do so!). This story is one of the ones that made this book for me. It would only have been better had it been longer. By, you know, a hundred thousand words or so.
The nicest thing I can say about A Draugr’s Tale by Hugh B. Long is that it reads like a bad Vikings/Walking Dead fanfic cross-over, with a wee bit of Tolkien tossed in for good measure.
Garman Lord’s Kinsman saw the return of an omniscient narrator which I really do not enjoy reading. The story was so-so, the writing decent enough; this is another that I put responsibility for my dislike on my own shoulders and not so much the author’s.
Woodencloak by Erin Lale reads like the folktale it is. I don’t know why I can handle a more distant narrative voice with some and not with others; in this tale, it works well. This sort of fiction I don’t tend to seek out, but when I come across it I tend to like it.
L.J. Bonham’s Blood Allies is a period piece with vampires, shape changers, and dried moose meat in Europe. Vampires? Woohoo! Werewolves? Not a problem. Regionally specific names for animals going against convention? Hold the phones, nurse! This is why I stated up front that I know I’m a pedant. It’s silly. I realize that Eurasian ‘elk’ and the North American ‘moose’ are the same, like caribou and reindeer, that the biggest difference is a matter of tradition more than anything substantial — that when we talk about reindeer we’re talking about creatures from the Old World, and when we’re talking about caribou it’s the New World (and why don’t musk oxen have that distinction?), but it matters to me. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does, and it makes it hard to enjoy the story. ‘Moose’ is so North American to me, it just booted me right out. (I ventured back in, and liked the rest well enough.)
Kenaz by Hannah Burton was a sweet and touching tale of what the first meeting of Odin and Loki may have looked like.
Jeff Szappan’s Jormungandr I will admit to skipping after the first few pages. There is a certain type of sci-fi writing that I really can’t get into, and this was it, exactly. Again, not the author’s fault.
A Wolf in the Hills by J. M. Rose suffered only because I was over reading this collection by the time I reached it. The writing was solid, the story fast-paced and all sorts of hunting the monster goodness, though I really wish there had been less demons from hell sorts of stories (or turns of phrase, in this case.)
And then we come to the typos. Generally I try to not let such things influence my opinion of a work. Editing is difficult, catching all the little things is hard and tedious, and if the stories are good, often the little things are easy to tolerate. But, between the writing level of this collection being all over the scale, and the theme of the collection seeming inconsistent at times (upon reflection, it wasn’t as much as it appeared to be at the time; there were a few stories that did not seem to fit, but to me they did not seem to fit so much that it gave an overall impression of inconsistency of theme) and the inconsistent approach to dialogue tagging, and the misplaced quotation marks …. The best thing I can say about this anthology is that it’s inconsistent. There are stories in here I would recommend, authors whose other works I want to hunt down and read, and so, to that end, yeah, it was worth reading. But I really wish I hadn’t been reading it to review, so I could have skipped more of the stories than I did.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from the Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a small horde of cats, one small dog, and three spunky spinning wheels. You can find her online at http://thesaturatedpage.wordpress.com%5D.]